A big break for ag tech starts ups is also Salinas' big break

Feb 27, 2015

California Safe Soil takes food waste and turns it into fertilizer.
Credit California Safe Soil

Dan Morash’s big idea touches on a big problem.  Food waste.  “Unfortunately there’s an awful lot of it.  A typical supermarket throws away about 500 pounds of food a day. So it’s a big problem and the scale is big, and this is a great solution,” says Morash, founder of California Safe Soil.

And his solution is this: take all the produce a grocery store can’t sell or donate, run it through a proprietary process that takes just three hours, and out the other end comes fertilizer known as Harvest 2 Harvest or H2H.

“On day one staff culls the produce aisles at the super market.  Day two we get it and run it through our process, an day three its back at the farm, through the drip lines into the root zone to help grow the next crop,” says Morash.

Cal Safe Soil has a pilot plant up and running in West Sacramento.  It has a major client in the Save Mart chain of grocery stores, and some growers are already using its fertilizer. 

Even with these successes, being selected for the Thrive Accelerator offers his company something it didn’t have. “Exposure to growers in Salinas,” says Morash.

The Thrive Accelerator is a program that offers ag tech start-ups mentorship from Salinas agricultural leaders and the chance at funding.   When Silicon Valley investment firm, SVG Partners launched the accelerator last year, more than 40 companies from around world applied for the ten spots.   Companies selected came from as far away as Tel Aviv, Israel and Zurich, Switzerland. 

Lorri Koster, Chairman and CEO of Mann Packing, is mentor to Cal Safe Soil.  Mann Packing is a grower, shipper and processor with a 75 year history in the Salinas Valley.  It's also one of the country’s leading suppliers of fresh vegetables. 

As a mentor, Koster has helped Cal Safe Soil with things like refining their pitch for growers and making connections.  “Everyone can name the shippers of the world:  Dole, Chiquita, Mann, but the growers are a little bit harder to find behind us, so opening some doors making some introductions,” says Koster

Koster walks down the hallway at Mann Packing’s headquarters in Salinas to a break room where there’s a fridge with some of Mann’s products including ready to eat romaine lettuce leaves and a bag of Asian stir fry vegetables.  It’s all food that in its preparation leaves waste behind.

“Naturally when we cut cauliflower florets, the core of the cauliflower where the leaves are has to go somewhere,” says Koster.

Right now that food waste becomes feed for livestock, but Koster has to pay to have it hauled away.  So as a mentor, she’s also opened up Cal Safe Soil’s eyes to a whole other market beyond the grocery stores.

"My big dream would be to have them open up a plant here where they’re taking our culls and making the fertilizer here and employing people and contributing back to the economy," says Koster.

And that gets to the big dream here in Salinas.  “The bottom line is we want to be that point of intersection where the fresh and food and technology intersect for the planet,” says Dennis Donohue, former Salinas mayor and now Chairman of the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation which worked with SVG Partners to launch the Thrive Accelerator.

Sitting in downtown Salinas, Donohue watches as construction continues on the new headquarters for Taylor Farms.  That's where Steinbeck Innovation is also going to put an center where start-ups can rent space and connect with the ag industry.

“The whole idea is to create an environment of innovation.  You have to have the environment where things can happen is there capital, is there academia?  Is there talent?  Are there customers?  And so around the fresh world, because I really do believe we’re the fresh never center of the planet, we have a lot of those things,” says Donohue.

And for a company like Morash’s Cal Safe Soil, Salinas would be a good fit for its both the food waste created in ag and for the growers who could use the fertilizer.  “That’s like grabbing the brass ring on the merry go round,” says Morash.

In the Thrive Accelerator, the ten companies are also competition for a chance to pitch investors for up to $5-millon in funding.  The winners will be announced at the upcoming Forbes Reinventing America Ag Tech Summit in July.

But next week, the public can learn about all ten finalists at the Thrive Accelerator Demo Day at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.  The event takes place Wednesday, March 4th and runs from 1:00pm to 3:00pm.